A variety of masks are for sale in Tokyo's popular Shibuya district, Friday, March 10, 2023.

A variety of masks are for sale in Tokyo's popular Shibuya district, Friday, March 10, 2023. (Akifumi Ishikawa/Stars and Stripes)

TOKYO — The most recognized emblem of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the one likely to persist, is about to lose some of its clout in Japan.

New mask guidelines from the government take effect Monday, three years after face coverings became a universal fashion accessory across the country, according to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare’s website.

The ministry will recommend individuals decide for themselves whether to wear masks in public. Never an actual mandate, mask wear persists in Japan as the pandemic wanes.

The coronavirus continues to infect an average 9,500 people per day, a declining number. Japan on Jan. 14 experienced its highest one-day pandemic death toll, 503, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Under the guidelines revised in February, the ministry recommends wearing masks only in medical facilities and on crowded trains and local buses but says nothing about masks on Japan’s iconic shinkansen trains or long-distance buses.

“We want to promote the return of daily life and economic and social activities,” Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare Katsunobu Kato said at a February news conference, according to Yomiuri Shimbun report on Feb. 11.

The ministry will also drop its recommendation that students wear masks at schools starting April 1.

The ministry continues to recommend masks for the elderly or those with health issues or a higher risk of getting seriously ill when contracting COVID-19.

Much of the business sector is leaving the mask decision to its patrons.

Railway company JR East will no longer expect passengers to wear masks on its trains, even during rush hours, but staff will continue to do so, President Yuji Fukasawa told reporters Tuesday. JR East on Monday will cease public announcements on trains and in stations asking passengers to wear masks.

Likewise, the Scheduled Airlines Association of Japan, composed of the country’s domestic airline companies, agreed last month to allow passengers to decide on masks based on Japanese government guidelines, according to the association’s website.

Commuters wear masks at Shibuya Station in Tokyo, Friday, March 10, 2023.

Commuters wear masks at Shibuya Station in Tokyo, Friday, March 10, 2023. (Akifumi Ishikawa/Stars and Stripes)

Tokyo Disney Resort will leave mask wear up to visitors and staff, according to its website. Universal Studios Japan said its staff will continue wearing masks, although visitors may decide for themselves, Kyodo News reported March 3.

Other companies, including Toho Cinemas, which runs 73 movie theaters nationwide; convenience store chains 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson; and Aeon Group, which operates supermarkets, shopping malls and cinemas, will allow patrons to make their own decisions on masks, according to a report by public broadcaster NHK on Tuesday.

The guidelines on masks were revised after Japan decided in January to downgrade the status of COVID-19 on May 8 to the same category as common infectious diseases, such as seasonal flu.

More than 33.3 million people in Japan contracted COVID-19 and nearly 73,000 died as a consequence of the disease over the past three years, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The health ministry said it may recommend masks again if the number of COVID-19 cases increases.

The revised guidelines still recommend basic measures against infection, such avoiding closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact situations, as well maintaining social distancing, washing hands and ventilating indoor spaces.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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